The United Kingdom and the world are celebrating the life of Captain Tom Moore for raising a lot of money for the British health service’s charitable wing. Moore is being praised as a hero, but he was a member of the British occupying force in India. The British caused millions of deaths in India and left the country in shambles. Moore should have apologized to the people of India for being part of an imperialist force in India. Instead of raising money for NHS Charities Together, he should have raised money for reparations for India.
Ashu M. G. Solo
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Samantha Rajaram’s debut novel The Company Daughters transports readers to the Dutch Renaissance with the rise in its national power as a seafaring nation, the growth of a new urban bourgeoisie with its patronage for visual arts like portraiture, new styles of urban architecture, gardening, flower arrangement, and cuisine, but beneath this façade of beauty and refinement lurks the seamier underbelly of mercantile capitalism: colonization, slave trade and overt and covert forms of human trafficking. Rajaram, a California Bay Area native, a former lawyer, and an English professor plumbs this rich material for her accomplished fictional debut.
The novel is narrated from the first-person perspective of the protagonist Jana Beil. It follows a tripartite structure with the first part opening in Amsterdam where a hungry and desperate Jana is seeking work as a servant in the prosperous sections of Amsterdam as a house servant after, we will be told later, having escaped a childhood of parental neglect and violence and a horrific period of sexual slavery in Amsterdam’s newly emerging brothels. A wealthy young woman Sontje Reynst hires her, and this marks the beginning of a life-long relationship between these two women from very disparate social strata.
For Jana, employment in the Reynst household provides a modicum of stability and comfort, which is quickly lost when Master Reynst’s fortune is lost in a shipwreck. Jana is quite resilient and secures employment in another rich household, the De Graf family. Sontje’s life is more dramatically overturned by her father’s financial losses and her coveted engagement is called off by her suitor Hans. She cannot find a way out of her mounting debts to creditors and the potential loss of her home. It is at this juncture that she comes across the Dutch East India Company’s advertisement for single women to make the voyage to Batavia, present-day Indonesia, to become wives of Dutch settlers there. She signs up for her arduous year-long voyage and Jana decides to accompany her.
The second part of the novel is set on the ship, Leyden, and captures the hardships and dangers of this arduous voyage. Jana and Sontje, along with the other Company daughters face diseases like scurvy which affects many sailors and eventually kills one of the daughters. As the voyage reaches its final stages there is a shortage of food and drinking water. Sontje is also subjected to sexual violence in this journey, and it is Jana’s loving care that brings her back from the brink of death. It is in the Leyden that the girls establish a romantic intimacy, proclaiming their hearts and bodies as autonomous of the cogs of the capitalist patriarchal Company that is trading them as wives to settlers.
When they reach Batavia, Sontje is married off to Willhelm, a settler of ill repute, who is abusive towards her. Jana is married to Mattheus, an older, though kinder man. Jana feels no attraction for her husband and spends her days waiting for some sporadic contact with Sontje. After the hiatus of their marriages and Sontje giving birth to a son, the two girls renew their intimacy. Both are acutely uncomfortable with the operations of the settler society which relies on various kinds of slave labor. Jana’s tenuous autonomy and marital harmony are again disrupted by Mattheus’s death in an accident. Somehow, when all seems lost until two of her native slaves come to her rescue by offering to sell their native dyed fabrics. The novel closes with the prospect of renewal.
Samantha Rajaram deserves kudos for her historical research in uncovering this material: the Dutch East India Company procuring wives for settlers. She presents a very accurate picture of Renaissance Amsterdam with its class and religious disparities. The depiction of the long sea voyage is powerful in its harrowing detail. The lesbian love story is also presented with great tenderness and serves as a space of feminist defiance against multiple gendered oppressions.
However, the presentation of feminist solidarity between Jana, the Dutch protagonist, and her native Indonesian slaves, Aini and Candra, does not seem to be historically accurate. It is perhaps more of a utopian aspiration of the author. But it feels like Dues Ex Machina in a novel, which is otherwise unsentimental in its representation of colonial history and seductive in its ability to capture and preserve the reader’s interest in this violent and inhumane era.
Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
The Company Daughters by Samantha Rajaram. Bookouture, October 2000
Swadeshi in Mahatma Gandhi’s thinking is a moral value and a practice in socio-economics and intrinsically linked to svarāj (self-rule), satyāgraha (truth-force), ahimsa (non-injury), and sarvodaya (welfare for all).
The British Government in India stood for the capitalists and big business in Britain, and this determined the commercial, industrial and financial policies, such as paying for British war efforts and dispersing her debts. So big Indian industry was not fostered, and instead, exploited India’s immense resources and labor markets.
Gandhi sensed that by patronizing indigenous industry, big and small, work could be made available to the unemployed masses, and thereby they would not be ruthlessly exploited. What was foremost on his mind was the stark poverty of the masses. Gandhi advocated the revival of cottage industry such as khadi, which became the symbol both of the rejection of foreign-manufactured goods and the embracing of indigenous industry in microscale forms, symbolized by the charkha.
In the 1930s, 73% of the population were dependent upon agriculture; other than being engaged in harnessing raw material for the factory mills in England; industrialization could not reach nor benefit the masses. There could be no svarāj unless a way was found to ameliorate the hardship and horrors of the masses. Gandhi’s vision was that of a free India where a mobilized peasantry in the rural area would resist the spread of industrial capitalism and, instead, were empowered toward their own means of production.
The second divide was internal, namely, the growing urban-ruraldivide. Urban industrial schemes used the villagers for their cheap labor and raw material. Furthermore, the introduction of urban values, economy, and way of life in the villages led to the destruction of traditional forms of sustenance, way of life, and the values that go with it. Gandhi was keen to free the village economy these yokes. So the idea of progress and reform had to be circumscribed within the context of the rural environment and rural needs, not wants.
Swadeshi became popular in India after the Partition of Bengal. As Sushila Nayar notes, ‘Gandhiji made a distinction between “political swadeshi” and “genuine Swadeshi”. Political Swadeshi meant an artificial barrier on the flow of goods from one place to another and imposed by political division of the world. It could not contribute to world peace.
Gandhiji felt the need for “genuine Swadeshi” – which meant denying ‘to ourselves the enjoyment of goods not manufactured with our approval and within our knowledge’. Only thus would human beings become fully sensitive to the social repercussions of their transactions, and pave the way for world peace. Gandhi’s appointed economist, the Columbia University-trained J C Kumarappa, called this the ‘economics of peace’ and led the All-India Village Industries Association established by the National Congress in 1934.
The concept of swadeshi coupled with svarāj had a universal appeal outside India.
In the southern parts of America where the descendants of the slaves were searching for a scheme that would empower their industriousness in agriculture and crafting of small goods, Booker T. Washington, a black social reformer, set up the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in regional Alabama; he learned from Gandhi’s emissary, C F Andrews, how the rural and unemployed work towards self-sustainability in Gandhi’s ashrams. Tuskegee deployed a similar scheme to cultivate skills such as carpentry, printing, brick making, agri-and-pharma culture, soil care, waste management, and home economics. This was an experiment in self-sustainability that drew wide attention across America; two American Presidents visited Tuskegee and helped raise endowments.
In more recent times, African nations such as Botswana and Swaziland have adopted the Swadeshi model.
While I was a Fulbright Scholar in India, I came to realize the realities and hardships of the rural workers who migrate to urban areas for work. They face many challenges, not least in the areas of food security, poverty, literacy, sanitation, health, and immune deficiencies. The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted a large number of precarious and vulnerable families. Many slum families have lost their livelihoods. Some are gradually trying to recover, and many are forced to sell vegetables or other eatables or take up whatever short-term daily wage labor they are able to garner; while others have returned to native villages and may return when the livelihood prospects improve.
Families who possess food grain storage are able to cope better; however, most have exhausted their grain reserves. Families without grain storage suffer badly during the lockdowns and depend on a supply of free food items from Government or civil society sources. These families run a high risk of facing food insecurity, undernutrition, and non-immunity against the rapid spread of COVID-19 in regional areas.
It is obvious that tradition meets with difficulties when it attempts to negotiate the demands of a democratic, open, and pluralistic modernist society. A holistic and de-hierarchized model of life and the world, where duties, roles, and functions are stressed within an overarching order of right, is a better model when social and moral ideals – such as freedom, justice, and equality – are relativized to this larger order.
As Gandhi stressed, ‘Economics is untrue which disregards moral values. This extension of the law of nonviolence in the domain of economics means nothing less than the introduction of moral values. I use the adjective moral as synonymous with spiritual.’
In the Gandhian model of economics: exploitation is replaced by service; acquisitiveness by renunciation or minimalism; global by the local; and centralization by self-regulation. ‘The economic system, politically nonviolent and democratic, should be cooperative and constructive instead of [being] exclusive, competitive, and militant.’ Gandhi eschewed reliance on luxurious and superfluous goods and the entertainment fetishism that provides no moral or intellectual succor and does not help with the development of character. This does not preclude public utilities on larger-scale plans nor centralized and capital-intensive public services for other needs, provided there is a measure of balance with small-scale, labor-intensive, decentralized, and village- or community-based service portals that provide for the diverse needs of human beings and animals in a protected ecological environment.
There have been a few bold thinkers who have delved into moral and legal texts in order to distill ideas into what the Kolkata-based theorist S. K. Chakraborty has dubbed “Spiri-nomics” (shorthand for “spirituality” + “economics”). This is a timely scheme, making an impact on India’s management and business arenas.
Milton Singer offered valuable insight. In looking for new spiritual incentives to help modernize India’s economy, he commented: In their indigenous ‘materialism,’ as well as in their philosophy of renunciation, interpreted by Gandhi as a discipline of action in the service of others, may reside the psychological and moral motive forces needed for a democratic and nonviolent industrial development of India. Gandhi sought to lay the basis for redistribution of wealth that would be consistent with a sacrificial moral order (ṛta/dharma) of the cosmos.
Where to with ātmanirbhar bhārat abhiyān?
Today, Indiaas a hub of outsourcing for foreign corporations holds some promises, but there are also issues. The new Indian entrepreneurship might not augur well for swadeshi; perhaps it may when redirected by the dynamic spirit of atmanirbhar abhiyān. But if the Gandhian principles and experience of Swadeshi are not followed it may end up rehearsing the old pattern of dominance in the race towards globalization, both economic and political.
Even as India’s global outreach brings its GDP growth rate close to 6.0 percent, there is a lack of adequate infrastructure for proper redistribution and utilization of state funds toward microsocial programs and empowerment for the precariously disadvantaged. The bureaucracy given to excessive red tape and middle-management, impacts on helpless farmers (who have been taking themselves to suicide), also on women farmers, or the powerless vegetable vendor in the local market. As the Berkeley economist, Pranab Bardhan, points out, this is India’s postcolonial tragedy, in contrast to China’s much better-organized infrastructure and distribution systems.
Dr. Purushottama Bilimoria is a Research Fellow with the Center for Dharma Studies, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley; a visiting professor of the University of California; and a Principal Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is co-Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Dharma Studies.
Not a ray of hope, but a mountain of light emerged from the Kohinoor. A dazzling rock carved out from the Golconda mines. A mighty jewel for an emperor’s crown!
I steal a look at her chiseled profile, head bent over a book. Black lashes cast sweeping shadows. A twinkle of a tiny, but brilliant diamond in her nose. A glittering mustard seed. A diamond mined from the Kollur Golconda mines in Guntur district of Andhra. The mines that produced the legendary 100 carat diamond in the coffers of Babur, the founder of Mughal Empire. I touch the tousled hair splayed on my shoulder. The diamond gleams softly, reassuringly. My girl’s light may not be as lofty as a mountain but it warms my heart. Her limpid eyes are twin Manasarovar lakes in Mount Kailash. Her still waters are cool and sweet to quench my longing for life, born with an emotional acre of her own. Sunflowers, moonbeams and white diamonds bursting on rolling tides. A waxing, gibbous moon rising. The Pink City awakening to a fragrant deluge. My mother, warm and eager to hold her by my side. Her beauty summoned tears of joy. We laughed through our tears. She was here. Our own bundle of perfection. Made of sugar, almonds, makhanas, moonstones, tender secrets, clarified butter, cardamom, laughter, white clouds, musk and iridescent peacock feathers.
Today she stands tall and lithe, with a delicate bone structure. Mango-bark tresses gleam on her shoulders. She curls them around her face, delighted in the effect. I smile. She twirls a silky strand on her finger, sifts her thoughts through a sieve of memory. I love the parts of her that are familiar. The unfamiliar aspects of her aptitude intrigue me. Melodies speak to her, her sense of style, her attention to detail. Simple pleasures of baking a perfect pastry. A shriek of delight at a “pun” unintended. Her competitive spirit in chess, golf and scrabble. “I take after my nani” she sighs in relief, when she surveys a well made bed, a gleaming kitchen, a tidy home. Different from my hurly burly ways. I thank my sweet mother as her gentle goodness gleams in the brilliant facets of my daughter’s soul. Together they shine brighter than the Kohinoor. An inimitable quality. Soft, supple, strong. Focused. Minimalists, both. Comfortable in vintage jeans, a well-cut soft blouse, small hoops. Her waif-like face, huge eyes and an aura of effortless beauty makes heads turn. My mother was also stopped in her tracks. Her regal bearing still inspires awe. They do not belong to a tribe. They have agency. Their combined Myrrh envelops me. She ties and unties the knots in her hair and heart. Her lustrous eyes search for a safe place. A garden to call home. Where her moonflowers will take root and grow.
She has a hint of “his mother”, in her knotted brow but lacks in worldly ways. She does not gesture with her eyes. Nor engages in endless banter with the motley multitude. The world wants to engage her in conversation. She looks up from her inner reverie, and politely responds to mundane questions: When will the flight take off? Are you traveling alone? What are you reading? She has her wits about her, to evade personal intrusion. She is good at concocting “travel identities”. My mother-in-law never even lifted eyes from her knitting, when we drove from Jaipur to Agra. But my moonbeam loves to go places. They avidly absorb history, art, culture, museums, gardens. This COVID lockdown has doused our wanderlust. We can’t fly to be with her ‘nani’, but we walk. We reminisce. We read, sing, paint. Tell stories.
Monita Sonihas one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India, and a heart steeped in humanity. Monita has published many poems, essays and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.
The South-Asian identity of the Indian diaspora is inherently biased and it is fraught with inaccuracies. It also constitutes part of a deliberate attempt by leftist groups to deny and subsequently erase from the consciousness the memory of a glorious non-Western indigenous pagan civilization.
The question of identity and how we, both as an individual and a group, relate to the rest of the world has been explored by social scientists, anthropologists, and spiritual scholars alike. Most consider identity as linkages of social structure and/or an internal process of self-verification. Whether in affirming group identity or in resisting assimilation and digestion, this notion forms the core of identity politics.
Bharatvarsha – as the indigenous inhabitants called their subcontinental sacred land – is a land of major rivers (the Sapta-Sindhu), high mountains (the Himalayas), vast forests (the Vindhyas), and unfathomable seas (Samudra). It has a recorded history spanning well over 5,000 years. This land “bears traces of the gods and the footprints of the heroes. Every place has its own story, and conversely, every story in the vast storehouse of myth and legend has its place.” (Diana Eck, A Sacred Geography).
Foreigners – travelers, and invaders alike – later called this land as India and Hindustan (the land of the Hindus). When Columbus sailed to explore the ‘new world’, the land of big fortunes, he was going to India, not South Asia. The European colonizers named their trading companies East India Company, not South Asia Company.
In fact, South Asia did not enter the Western lexicon until the 1940s. It became an identity marker for immigrants in North America from the Indian subcontinent, including Myanmar and Tibet in some cases. In its simplest form, this marker represents a certain cultural and historical background of US immigrants from the Subcontinent in general and India in particular. Post-1947, ‘South Asianism’ in the US emerged as a form of political activism. This notion of belonging to a borderless larger geographical entity was promoted primarily by the leftist intellectuals and activists.i
In the graph below, you will see the term South Asia unused until the 1940s.
The ‘South Asian” label itself, however, was first used by American politicians and academics, not the immigrants themselves. In 1948 the first department of South Asian Regional Studies became functional in the US at the University of Pennsylvania that offered courses in geography, linguistics, Hindustani, sociology, etc. The emergence of such departments in US universities, however, owes primarily to the political and strategic objectives of the US government during and after World War II. Many South Asia departments were funded, among others, by the US intelligence apparatuses, and many of the South Asian ‘scholars’ were actually spies of the US government. Prominent among them include Olive Irine Reddick and Maureen L. P. Patterson. Reddick was an analyst in the Office of Strategic Services and worked as an undercover operative in India during the war (1942-1946). Later she ran the Fulbright Scholarship program for 14 years. Patterson, who worked in the US Government’s War Department, is credited with developing the world-famous collection at the University of Chicago South Asian Library.
The other purpose served by these South Asia departments was to train the missionaries about to go off to do “church work” in India. Combined, the legacy of these South Asia departments still haunts every aspect of the study of India in the US and beyond.
The South Asian identity is highly contested and has never been universally accepted. Many consider South Asia as a representation of India’s cultural, geographical, and economic hegemony. Leftist groups, academicians, and politicians opposed to the identity of the Hindus and people belonging to other indigenous faiths of the Indian subcontinent have used the South Asian label to delegitimize the genuine concerns of these religious minorities in the US. The same group has also worked hard to remove most references of India and Hindu from the California high school textbooks.
The socio-political goals of the Indian-subcontinental diaspora in the US are diverse and varied. India is the second-most populous country as well as the fifth-largest economy in the world. While Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are constitutional Islamic theocracy, India is a Hindu-majority secular state. Indians are among the most educated and their average household income is among the highest of any ethnic/national group in the US.
It is time for Indian-Americans to carve out a separate non-South Asian identity for themselves to advance their social, political, and cultural agenda in the US.
This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.
Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and an activist. He writes frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic Knowledge Tradition, and current affairs in several media outlets.
When I learned that the Oscar International committee had disqualified a movie from Nigeria because it was predominantly in English, I was appalled. I’m an Indian immigrant who came to America in 1985 but I’ve been speaking English since I was a child. Sometimes, I have thoughts in my mother tongue, Tamil. However, more often than not, my thoughts are in English. This may be because I write only in English, since English remains one of India’s 23 official languages.
Thanks to the British empire, the English language is now the language with commercial heft. It’s as local as it is international. There are many versions of English. The Nigerian poet and novelist, Gabriel Okara, who explored African ideas and folklore in the English language, articulated this perfectly with respect to the English he acquired: “Why shouldn’t there be a Nigerian or West African English which we can use to express our own ideas, thinking and philosophy in our own way?”
For years, I’ve been asked how I speak English well given that I immigrated to the United States as an adult. Americans often don’t know about India’s history of colonization, or that English is also an official Indian language, or that my medium of education was, in fact, English. If I were to narrate India’s story of colonization, I’d have to begin in 1608 when the first Englishman landed in Surat on India’s north-western coast. I’d have to talk about how Indian laborers were forced to grow indigo—in place of food crops—so that Britain could sell the precious blue dye that Europe coveted. And of course, the English wanted to drink rum so they enslaved poor Indians to plant sugar cane around tropical islands. Oppressed by the Raj, we were forced to buy thick cotton that rolled out from English mills even when we were making our own fine muslin for a fraction of the cost. In time, Indians learned, also, to enunciate English vowels and consonants. They were hammered into those reporting to the Crown. Soon, the Englishmen made us cringe at our own mother tongues, telling us, in the voice of essayist and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Around the world, over centuries, colonizers wiped out countless languages, erasing the names of ancestors.
Here are just a few stories of conquests from the last many centuries. In the 1500s, the Portuguese landed in Brazil—1200 men on a fleet of 12 ships. They decimated most of the natives and harvested Brazilian wood for its red dye, ramming Portuguese words down the throats of those who survived the pillage. 1619, the imperial nations began looting African villages, separating children from parents, so they could build their new colonies in the Americas. In Australia, they silenced aborigines. 1950s in Kenya, if a student uttered a word of Gikuyu near his English school, he was caned or fined; sometimes he was made to wear a metal plate around the head with the words “I am stupid” or “I am a donkey”. In the Philippines, 500 years of Spanish and American rule has killed any appetite for Tagalog literature.
This is a plunder, of not just nations but also of memories, cultures and tongues. In Nigeria, too, as in India, the British force-fed their tongue. So the English language is as local to the Nigerian as Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba or any of 500 native tongues. But alas, the arbiters of acclaim in Hollywood now object to Nigerians using English as a conduit for art, not appreciating that in Nigeria, English now unifies them and allows them to communicate with one another.
According to the Oscar committee, the Nigerian entry did not fit their rubric because it was not foreign enough: Lionheart had only eleven minutes of non-English dialogue. Look at the irony of the life of the once-colonized. We were taught how to speak. Now when we speak the language well, we are told to not speak too much of it. Shouldn’t the Oscar committee be driven, instead, by the origin of the submission? For while our medium of expression may be eclectic given our histories, our roots are often ours alone. They color our tongues and narratives.
Kalpana Mohan is the author of ‘An English Made In India: How A Foreign Language Became Local’ and of ‘Daddykins: A Memoir Of My Father And I’. She lives in Saratoga, California.
This story was sent to us and Co-organized by San José Museum of Art (SJMA) and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA)
Organized by Lauren Schell Dickens, curator, SJMA and Jodi Throckmorton, curator, PAFA
Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World is the first mid-career retrospective of the artist’s work. The exhibition presents almost twenty years of Banerjee’s large-scale installations, sculptures, and paintings—including a re-creation of her work from the 2000 Whitney Biennial; sculptures featured in the 2017 Venice Biennale; and recent work for the Prospect 4 New Orleans biennial.
Rina Banerjee (b. 1963 in Calcutta, India) grew up in London and eventually moved to New York. While the visual culture that she experienced as a child in India greatly influences her aesthetic, her immigration to the UK and her love of the diverse culture of her current home, New York City, form the core of her practice. Banerjee creates vivid sculptures and installations made from materials sourced throughout the world. She is a voracious gatherer of objects—in a single sculpture one can find African tribal jewelry, colorful feathers, light bulbs, Murano glass, and South Asian antiques in conflict and conversation with one another. These sensuous assemblages reverberate with bright colors and surprising textures present simultaneously as familiar and unfamiliar.
Amidst a progressively factious turn toward nativist politics in the United States, Banerjee relentlessly creates work that reflects the splintered experience of identity, tradition, and culture often prevalent in diasporic communities. Significantly, her career as an artist, beginning in the late 1990s, parallels the expansion of the global art world, the Internet, and the repeated rise and fall of “identity politics” in art. Though Banerjee is one of the most important artists of the post-colonial Indian diaspora living in the United States, and her work has consistently gained visibility internationally (especially in Asia and Europe), she remains relatively unknown to U.S. museum audiences.
Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World focuses on four interdependent themes in Banerjee’s work that coincide with important issues of our time: immigration and identity; the lasting effects of colonialism and its relationship to globalization; feminism; and climate change.
A full-color, ca. 160-page catalogue was published in conjunction with the exhibition and available for purchase at SJMA’s Shop.
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, October 27, 2018—April 7, 2019
San José Museum of Art, May 17—September 29, 2019
Palm Springs Museum of Art, CA Spring 2020 (TBC)
Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN, August 6—October 25, 2020 (TBC)